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The Politics of Fires and Haze in Southern Southeast Asia  

Helena Varkkey

Transboundary haze pollution originating from fires in Southern Southeast Asia affects about half of the countries in Southeast Asia with varied intensities on an almost annual basis. Haze not only affects visibility but also causes widespread health problems, transportation disruptions, and other socioeconomic issues. This haze and the fires that cause it have been a key topic for environmental politics research in the region since the late 1990s. This has largely been driven by one overarching objective: how to prevent haze from returning in the following years. However, conditions on the ground (mostly in Indonesia and in the larger Southeast Asian region) have been changing and evolving drastically, which has resulted in a dynamic research agenda that has to keep up. Within the context of environmental politics, fires and haze can be viewed through the broad lens of national interest. There is a strong link between the severity of haze and the burgeoning agribusiness sector in the region: that of oil palm in particular. Oil palm is a very important crop in the region, with Indonesia and Malaysia generating almost 90% of total global palm oil output. Hence, national and business interest theories have often been used as a framework for research in this area, with commercial oil palm plantations often being the unit of analysis. However, this has been called to question lately as these plantations face increasing market pressure to act more sustainably. A new group of actors that have since been highlighted are smallholders, either independent or in contract with larger plantations. There is potentially much to be uncovered with regard to the relationships between smallholders and commercial plantations and how they affect patterns of fire use and global sustainability issues. Related to this is the ever-evolving collection of local, regional, and national policies (and related enforcement issues) on land and fire use in Indonesia. One key area of contention is the use of peatlands. Fires on peat produce the thick, sooty smoke that travels across national boundaries, and they are notoriously hard to put out. Political research in this area is heavily framed by a tough debate between the scientific community and socioeconomic concerns. While peatlands play an important role in the global climate change balance, they also face immense pressure for development fueled by the scarcity of land. The regional context has also been an important theme for haze research. Haze primarily affects the Southern Southeast Asian subregion, and the major players of the palm oil sector come from this area. The Indonesian palm oil sector is a vibrant combination of Malaysian, Singaporean, and local companies. And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been the hub of cooperation and mitigation activities over haze. Hence, many scholars have searched for answers at the regional level. However, new national developments, such as Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, suggest that countries may be losing confidence in regional efforts.


Land Grabs: The Politics of the Land Rush Across Africa  

Pauline Peters

The currently extensive land appropriation across Africa signals the most radical shift in the distribution and tenure status of land since colonial times. The first alarms about “land grabs” by foreigners were raised by advocacy groups around 2007–2008. The search for land, always watered land, by foreign agents is driven by concerns about rising food and oil prices, and most of the acquired land is put under food crops, biofuels, and flex crops. The promises of profits from the exceedingly low price of land across Africa, as well as the rising demand for the mentioned crops, have also attracted speculation by private equity funds. With more detailed research on the processes and effects of this shift in rights to (and use of) land, the focus on a “new scramble” by foreign agents has extended to the multiple processes involved in the increasing demand for Africa’s land, internally and externally. The increase in acquisition of land by international agents, not only for cultivation but for minerals, oil, timber, and so forth, exacerbates the accelerating demand for land within African countries by nationals such as salaried, middle-class people and politicians acquiring land for cultivation and for an investment fast increasing in value. The millions of small-scale users of largely “customary” land struggle to derive a livelihood from their smallholdings and access to dwindling and increasingly enclosed common land, including grazing and watering areas. These linkages among local, national, and global dynamics of land acquisition reveal mounting socioeconomic and political inequality across Africa. In addition, research on the land rush reveals competing visions for African agriculture, invoking the debate of large- versus small-scale agricultural futures, a long-standing question of agrarian studies now being asked within much changed political-economic, social, and environmental conditions. Both macro-data and field studies show that most of the foreign acquired land is used for large-scale plantations, some of which include contract farming and outgrower schemes. Although, for a variety of reasons, some large land deals fold, the most recent Land Matrix data show most do move into production. Research on these large-scale projects has shown, however, that most fail to attain the projected aims of providing benefits to the countries and people from which they acquired the land. Most appropriated land was already in productive use by local users rather than “under-utilized” or “waste land” as described in many documents by investors and donors such as the World Bank; there were fewer benefits in the form of employment, higher and sustained income, and lower risk for most laborers, contract farmers, and outgrowers; far less infrastructure (schools, clinics, roads, etc.) built, as promised, for local populations; and output that is either exported or that proves unsuitable for the locales, with lower production value at lower efficiency compared with the land uses before the large-scale projects were put in place. These negative findings have to be set alongside the facts that the investors acquire the land at either extremely low cost (usually lease rather than sale) or even free, and receive tax, import/export and other “incentives.” The failure to benefit the millions of small- to medium-scale users of land, despite the rhetoric of land investors, major donors such as the finance arms of the World Bank Group, and governments facilitating the deals, has emerged as a key problem in light of deepening poverty, and a dearth of sufficient employment to absorb the young population, let alone people “exiting” from the land. Numerous experts conclude that a continued rapid alienation of land, especially to large-scale investors, will exacerbate localized land scarcity, restrict the potential of smallholder-led development, and put unrealistic pressure on the non-farm economy to absorb Africa’s rapidly rising labor force.